Going Fishing


On Lake Tanganyika in Africa, fishermen use a fascinating method of catching fish. The equatorial sun shines brightly down onto the water. The fishermen take pieces of wood and tie them along a long rope, then stretch this rope between two canoes. Paddling alongside each other, the canoes head towards shallow water. When they have reached the shore, they find that schools of fish have amassed in piles, crowded into the rocks and onto the beach. The pieces of wood on the rope have created shadows all the way down to the bottom of the lake and the fish, seeing the slow, steady approach of these shadows, swim terrified in the opposite direction, and so are caught.

As a writer, you are a kind of fisher of readers, using shadows to manipulate reader attention. A protagonist, driven by a created crisis of some kind in a story, moves towards the story’s resolution; the reader, conceiving the shadow-threats within the story to possess some level of reality, moves with the protagonist. Should the reader be disturbed by a phone call, a conversation or some other real event, and is compelled to put the book down, the book’s shadows suddenly become thin and insubstantial — but if the shadows have been crafted well enough, the reader is soon back in the story, driven by them towards the climax and denouement of that particular tale.

A considerable mechanical background of the action and peculiarities of these story shadows make it possible for writers to bring about an improved condition in a work of fiction, when properly used. In How Stories Really Work, the shadows are called ‘vacuums’. These mechanical aspects, and the simple recognition that they lie at the root of all successful fiction, empower the writer who uses them to feel at once in harmony with his or her work, with the work of other authors, and to validate the reality of his or her writing ability. Successful authors use vacuums well, knowingly or unknowingly; unsuccessful authors have yet to achieve a command of them.

Caught up by the illusion of words, readers are subject to one of humanity’s greatest inventions —language. Words, forcefully spoken, like ‘Go away’, have no actual physical ability to instil emotion in readers. Yet feelings are instilled, although they may not be defined or recognised. Readers are impelled by words; words represent real force or emotion which was at some point used behind or alongside them. To a degree, writers hypnotise readers, using symbols of force to conjure into being emotions and sensations in total strangers, miles away. Writers create shadow cages, like the African fishermen. They directed readers by streams of words which effectively substitute for real physical and mental force. Language provides symbols for acts and things, and by its illusion, writers seek to create responses in people they have never met.

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